Classic Stage Company has brought us a jazzy little pastoral comedy, edited down to a reasonable 100 minutes to help celebrate their 50th anniversary. First performed in 1603 at Wilton House, Shakespeare’s As You Like It is considered by many a work of ‘great merit’ and popular with theater company’s worldwide for it’s sweetness and light romantic touches. This slimmed down version, as directed and designed by John Doyle (CSC’s Pacific Overtures), with original music by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen), is airy and sweet, filled with charming 1940’s style swing music (music supervisor: Mary-Mitchell Campbell), and adorable engaging performances. The music is charming and engaging, although sometimes distracting from the tale. But the air is filled with lightness and beautiful globes of color with a sweet glow, brought to us by the creative lighting designer, Mike Baldassari (Broadway’s Cabaret, 1998/2014). This and the charming original music helps create an atmosphere that just seems perfectly suited for this charming romance. So what went wrong?
As You Like It starts out as if a band of jolly traveling actors have come together to give us a show. They crowd together around a book-reading Ellen Burstyn (Tony and Oscar winner for the stage and film version of Same Time, Next Year), one of the biggest draws in the cast. And then they begin to tell us the tale of the fair and pretty heroine, Rosalind, played by an energetic and charming Hannah Cabell (Broadway’s The Father) who must flee persecution from her harsh and angry uncle, Frederick, played by the stern and powerful Bob Stillman (Broadway’s Grey Gardens). Frederick has usurped the duchy and exiled his older brother, Duke Senior, who also, later on, is played expertly by Stillman with a different jacket. There are a lot of changing of jackets going on in this skippy story. Escaping into the Forest of Arden, accompanied by her cousin Celia, played hilariously and wondrously by Quincy Tyler Bernstine (CSC’s Peer Gynt, Film: Manchester By the Sea), the two are in search of safety in the home of Rosaline’s father Duke Senior. Of course, being that this is Shakespeare, Rosaline decides that she must disguise herself as a young man (convincing), and Celia disguises herself as a poor lady (not so convincing), which naturally leads to a lot of confusion, desire, and love, announcing its instantaneous existence by the dinging of a musical triangle. I must admit, that if I had to escape into the woods, I definitely would want Bernstine’s Celia coming along with me. Although easily exhausted, she’s feisty and fun to be around, and such a pleasure to watch, sometimes stealing the attention away from the main action, but that face and that voice is just impossible to ignore.
As instantaneous love abounds in As You Like It, the triangle is struck when Orlando, played with effervescent energy and optimism by Kyle Scatliffe (Broadway’s recent revival of The Color Purple) first glances in the eyes of Rosalind. But Orlando is also forced to flee into the exact same woods after being persecuted by his twisted and vile older brother, Oliver, played by the handsome and well-spoken Noah Brody (Fiasco Theater & Roundabout’s 2015 revival of Into the Woods). Naturally they ‘meet cute’, but since Rosaline is disguised as a man, Orlando doesn’t recognize his true love, and frivolity ensues. Most delightfully in the reactions of pink sunglass-wearing Celia.
But what happened to the magnificent Burstyn, you may ask. She sat ever so quietly intensely watching the banishment with a serious look in her eye, dressed in shirt, tie, vest, and pants, looking ever so dapper (some lovely and charming costumes by Ann Hould-Ward), but she didn’t say a word. Once all are in the forest, we encounter, along side the piano playing Duke Senior, the melancholy traveller Jaques, in the persona of Burstyn. Finally she speaks. And when she does, she elegantly expresses some of the more famous Shakespearian speeches known to all, such as “All the world’s a stage” and “too much of a good thing”. Jaques is meant to provide us with a sharp contrast to all the lovers on the stage, observing and lamenting the hardships of life. It’s a lovely performance, quiet and simple, but doesn’t seem to be integrated. She only leaves us wanting more from this wonderful presence, but maybe in another different play, not this one.
All the ingredients are here for a delightful skip and swing through the woods into love and marriage, but strangely it just doesn’t really grab hold. Even with the wonderfully fun characterizations from André De Shields (Broadway’s The Wiz) as the fool, Touchstone, Cass Morgan (Encore’s Big River) playing the crazy Old Anna and sweet Audrey, Leenya Rideout (Broadway’s Company) as flirty and fickle Phoebe, and David Samuel (Arena Stage’s Ruined) as simple and strong Charles and Silvius, the language doesn’t feel wondrous enough. It might be that the editing down of this play to a one act adaptation just doesn’t do the story or the characters justice, leaving it jumbled and confusing. Sadly, my ears tell me a different story. The melodic and poetry of Shakespeare’s As You Like It isn’t there, and what is there is not to my liking. It stumbles in the woods, and no amount of colorful globes of light, rainbow umbrellas, or jaunty tunes will save the story from falling on it’s face.
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